BrewDog’s decision to row back on offering the real living wage to bar staff is up there with the self-proclaimed “punk” brewer’s biggest own goals.

However, unlike gaffes including ‘pink IPA for girls’ and selling beer in Qatar whilst simultaneously decrying its human rights record, this misstep has implications for workers in its hospitality division who, according to some in the business, are barely getting by as it is.

“BrewDog has been paying the real living wage since 2015. To withdraw it now, during the most acute cost of living crisis in a generation, is outrageous,” said Bryan Simpson, lead organiser at Unite Hospitality.

It’s hard to disagree with his assessment.

Real living wage at BrewDog voted ‘important’

BrewDog is a multinational brewer in all but name these days: its beers are sold on every corner of the planet, it turns over hundreds of millions of pounds a year, and its founder James Watt even recently announced it was working on a film documenting its meteoric rise.

Underpinning BrewDog’s success has been – until recently – a commitment to doing right by those that have contributed to its success.

Policies including offering the real living wage, paid sabbaticals and generous profit share schemes have helped attract and retain loyal staff willing to go above and beyond – and to leap to its defence in times of trouble. They also led – despite serious accusations levied against Watt in a 2022 BBC documentary – to BrewDog being named one of the Sunday Times Best Places to Work in 2023.

That status could now be under threat.

BrewDog staff past and present are said to be furious about the policy shift, which they say undermines the company’s ethical image and means hard-working employees will struggle to make ends meet.

According to The Guardian, one staff member wrote on BrewDog’s internal messaging platform they had been with the company long enough “to see every benefit that attracted me to the job either binned or completely reduced”.

Another said the move had been taken despite a consultation with staff last year in which maintaining the real living wage had been voted as a number one priority. To members who took part in the consultation process, this decision must have felt like a real kick in the teeth.

BrewDog’s benefits package scrutinised

Of course, BrewDog is far from the only large company not to offer the real living wage. Many hospitality businesses pay the national living wage to staff, and many of those have benefits packages that could be seen as less generous than BrewDog’s. But how many of their CEOs are as vocal and sanctimonious about their higher employment standards as Watt is?

Watt may argue BrewDog had little choice but to take this decision, given current trading conditions (the company made an operating loss of £24m in 2022, and said in its letter it also failed to break even in 2023). But, as countless studies have shown, millennial and gen Z consumers care about supporting ethical businesses, and want to buy products they feel good about spending their money on.

BrewDog was already in hot water in this department, having lost its B Corp certification in December 2022. This latest controversy will only add weight to the narrative that BrewDog’s claims it cares for planet and people are purely superficial.